Thursday, June 21, 2007

Birdsong 2

Again I find myself trespassing on Nige's ornithological territory, but, hey, I started this blog. I saw Why Birds Sing, a BBC4 documentary last night. This opposed the ideas of David Rothenberg - birdsong has something to do with beauty - to those of some rather bone-headed scientists - it is the result of sexual selection and a system of territorial marking. Rothenberg was sentimentally anthropomorphic and didn't really seem to know what he thought, but the scientists were worse because they failed to understand the limitations of their answers. Sexual selection may cause birds to do something but it does not explain why they do this. Even if we could show the production of sounds makes sense as a strategy, this would not explain the production of such extravagant sounds. 
Why do humans compose symphonies? Only a fool would be satisfied with the answer 'sexual selection'. The causal threads between the desire for a mate and an orchestral work in three movements have patently snapped long ago. What is true of symphonies is also true - though possibly to a lesser extent - of birdsong. 
Causality, even in the most basic scientific analysis, is seldom quite what it seems. Nige quoted Wallace Stevens in the comment to his Birdsong post - 'I am content when wakened birds, Before they fly, test the reality Of misty fields by their sweet questionings.' Raising oneself above the depraved Cartesianism of the boneheads, one can see from these exquisite words the possibility of an entirely new interpretation - perhaps birdsong is an epistemological tool. But this would be beyond the boneheads because a great deal of contemporary science seems to derive its rhetorical energy not from admitting the presence of the unknown, but from denying its existence.
The climax of the documentary was the plucking of another scientist-rabbit from the hat. He, apparently, had found a brain response in singing birds analogous to the human pleasure response. I can't imagine a more blindingly predictable finding. That singing does produce a brain response is obvious, that it produces one that seems to indicate pleasure is almost equally obvious. 
All of which is to say, people used to talk intelligently about such matters, now they just lurch from one conceited category error to the next. What we should be saying to the birds is what Shelley said to the skylark - 'Teach me half the gladness That thy brain must know...' Birds effortlessly know what they like doing - sing. We should be so lucky.


  1. I'm unsure of the tack you are taking this Lughnasa morn. But I do like the Epistemological tool idea. If the dance of bees can zone in on a flower, where the equivilance in distance for us would be some where in NZ. Its surely not that much of a stretch to include birds. Aristophanies, now there is a chap that with a lovely take on the entire issue.
    Two Swifts/Swallows (since dead in that blasted cold snap) took up squatting rights in my shed. They had their family, left, returned, had another, left, returned and died. Many a chat, about deep philosophical matters were had in that shed and many a musing about that odd Git, humming to himself.

  2. philip wallingJune 21, 2007 8:09 am

    Quite right Bryan!
    It's all about beauty - that's what these boneheaded puritanical 'scientists' can't see or won't admit.

  3. Well, on hearing that birds gain pleasure from song, the scientist will then ask: "So why do they get pleasure?" And the answer is probably something horribly like "sexual selection."

    The category error that scientists sometimes make, but that romantics much more frequently make, is to think that by explaining the evolutionary origins of something, you somehow diminish its aesthetic value. So by saying that we like Beethoven because deep down, musicality has sex appeal, we are saying "Oh, it's only because of sexual selection."

    The Mona Lisa is composed of canvas and paint, and indeed of atoms and whatnot. A physical description of the molecular composition of the Mona Lisa would not thereby diminish its value as a work of art.

    They're just different categories.

    Havind said that, I tend to Ted Hughes's view of birds. The interesting question is: why do humans like birdsong? "Because it's beautiful" and "because it is musical and musicality has a primitive sex appeal" are probably both valid answers. The scientists aren't boneheads for giving a scientific answer - rather, the mistake is to think that the scientific answer invalidates the romantic one.

  4. Brilliant Bryan - from my treetop eyrie among my feathered friends, I concur heartily (and I'm sure my friend Loophole will also agree). Like so much else, it all boils down to this ruthless, blnkered, reality-denying reductionism, stripping away evident reality to uncover to a startled world what's 'really' going on. 'Really'? A subject to which I intend to return...

  5. And you are right, Nige of course, in that I agree absolutely wholeheartedly with Bryan's words of wisdom. That birds sing because they enjoy it is obvious to all but the most boneheaded of boneheads.. Trying to explain beauty and the uplifting swell it provokes in the depths of one's inner being to a scientist is a pointless task, and not worth the effort. My blackbird sings purely for the joy of being a blackbird. And it's not hard to see why that must be so much fun.
    J Cheever Loophole

  6. Eunuchs, Bryan. The sorts who'd be happy to explain a symphony in terms of the air molecules' desire to vibrate so as to attract mates..

  7. Well said Cheever - but would the worm diet be fun? Birds are not us, and yet they speak to us - better than that, they sing to us. Who could ask for more?

  8. What a bunch of dewy-eyed milksops you lot are.

    Birds love singing and the stars are God's daisy chain.

  9. A milksop, Brit, and proud of it. Actually, it was the scientists in this show who were the most sentimentally anthropomorphic.

  10. Weed.


  11. what I say is this; who says they're bloody singing?! has anyone ask them? no.

    I mean, I like to think punjabi sounds like a sing-song language but if I went up and asked them, ''what you lot always singing about, then?'' I'd probably get my furkin' lights punched out!

    now equating something that might be enjoyable with beauty is piffle. I like to pick my nose - give it a good root around now and again. it's not a pretty sight.

    the problem is we humans: got to have a bloody answer for everything!

  12. Don't let the birdsong affect you like a siren call ("In early Greek art Sirens were represented as [big-- even giant?] birds with large heads and scaly feet, and sometimes manes, of lions. Later, they were represented as female figures with the legs of [big-- even giant?] birds, with or without wings playing a variety of musical instruments, especially harps.")

    Don't forget those Giant Birds.

    Maybe nature needs assistance in dealing with GBs. Maybe there's an urgent need for increased breeding of natural enemies of GBs such as the Goliath Bird-eating Spider.

  13. Just wondering, Dave, if you would consider the Goliath Bird Eating Spider a suitable pet for a small child?

  14. No, Andrew, the Goliath Bird-eating Spider is not a suitable pet for any child:

    ". . . it is not the friendliest critter. The Goliath Bird-eating Spider is aggressive and will attack."

    "It is a solitary animal and needs to be house[d] alone."

  15. Bird hate will keep breaking out (as will birdsong). I offer this way out - to love the song and hate the singer (if you must). ..
    For those (Americans perhaps?) mystified by a couple of recent exchanges, Molesworth
    (Nigel Molesworth, formally molesworth 1) is the greatest comic creation of postwar Britain. The Compleet Molesworth is unsurpassed as a bedside book (but pretty hard to get hold of at a sensible price). And no I am not Nigel Molesworth, though I have been mistaken for him .

  16. Thanks for the clarification, Dave. I thought it might be an inappropriate birthday present though I needed to be sure.

  17. andrew: I'd say the answer to that question depends on your answer to two further questions:

    Whose child is it?

    Do you like it?

  18. Well, is that 'scope back yet.

  19. Scientists are such cunts. They lack the most basic epistemology, and so mistake their descriptions of reality for reality. They're so naive and smug, like Xians.

    Eat the food, not the menu.

  20. The child is hypthetical, Ronin, but let us say that this hypothetical child is in need of some good moral guidance.

  21. Hypothetical children usually do, Andrew. I say, "Go for it!."

    BTW, vince, which 'scope are you looking for? Micro-, tele-, or procto-?